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Some Thoughts for the New President

Citizen Scientist
by Bill Schlesinger
Sat Jan 21st, 2017

The globalized future is upon us. We see it in the environment, where carbon dioxide emitted anywhere on Earth affects the climate for all of us, everywhere. We see it in rising sea level at your Palm Beach home, which reflects the melting of the glacial ice at the Earth’s poles. We see it in the global dispersion of mercury, which threatens our fisheries, already overtaxed by harvest.

Air travel and global trade allow us to get anywhere and to get something from everywhere within just a few hours. These are tremendous achievements.  But this globalization of transport affects our health, as new diseases such as Ebola and Zika are spread rapidly to unsuspecting people at home and abroad.  In forests, the emerald ash borer imported from Asia threatens to decimate white ash as an important forest tree in the East. Countless other native species are similarly threatened by exotic invasion from abroad.

Those who elected you, Mr. President, feel the globalization of the world’s economy and the ability of hardworking people in a far-off land to produce a competitive product at lower cost, putting Americans out of work.  These people are angry because their jobs have been outsourced, their kids can’t get into a decent college, and they see a differential privilege between the lives of a wealthy few and the disadvantaged many, whose kids are not likely to live better than their parents.  These people are the real losers, and no amount of wishful thinking will bring back their jobs in a globalized world.

All these are signs of a planet that is full or getting dangerously close to full very soon. Like populations of other species that ecologists have studied, the human species doesn’t feel good when the abundant resources are diminished by population growth, competition, and greed. We feel the diminished expectations that follow when the resource pie is divided into increasingly smaller pieces.

Countless ecological experiments show the demise of populations growing in a closed, finite environment, as resources are depleted, competition intensifies, and wastes accumulate.  On a full planet, it is impossible to stash the waste products of society somewhere where they don’t matter. As in studies of many animals, we may see migration of some human populations, but on a full planet, the potential for dispersal is limited.  We may resort to aggression, but war has never increased the carrying capacity of the planet for anyone.

Your supporters don’t like the idea that there is not a green valley just over the horizon that can sustain their past expectations of the good life on a limitless planet.  On a full planet, there is no green valley that awaits us.  In a connected and globalized world, we all compete in the same ecosystem.  And Darwin was right: all species, including us, have the capability to produce more offspring than needed, and only the most competitive will survive. The genie of economic globalization is out of the bottle and not going back in.

Perhaps it is time to realize that the four percent annual growth so cherished by economists is not sustainable on a fully connected planet.  We may see some productivity growth driven by automation and the ingenuity of the human spirit to produce new inventions for a better life. Solar energy may be one of these. But growth that depends on extraction of the Earth’s finite resources and adequate disposal of our wastes will diminish as our rising population divides the resource pie into smaller pieces that we do not want to share.

There is much to do to help sustain civilized life and a functional biosphere on a finite planet.  First and foremost, I urge you to base all your decisions on the best and most recent scientific analysis that you can find.  You may not have time or inclination to read much of the science yourself, but you should insist that all your agency chiefs follow it. There is nothing like facts to make your decisions the best they can be.  Scientists are not merely a special interest group.

Among actions you can take, the first is to support family planning efforts that may help reduce the rate of human population growth.  With fewer of us, there is a greater chance for a better life—the resource pie will not be so finely divided.  Second, adjustments by each of us will make it more likely to live with a lighter footprint on the planet, and to make it a better place for all.  A tax on the carbon emitted from fossil fuels is a good place to start. Third, we must foster the preservation of nature, which stabilizes the climate and offers healthy conditions conducive to human persistence. Rolling back regulations is a certain way to insure that we will use and pollute our portion of the resource pie more quickly, even if it makes some folks feel good.  A few more jobs today do not balance choking on dirty air tomorrow.

Finally, we must recognize that we are in an era where cooperation, not greed, must define our behavior. When the playground is full, it pays to play well together if we expect the game to go on.


Bliese, J.R.E.  1996.  The conservative case for the environment.  Intercollegiate Review 32: 28-36.

Burger, J.R. and 10 others. 2012.  The macroecology of sustainability.  PLoS Biology 10: e1001345

Kalof, L., T. Dietz, G. Guagnano and P.C. Stern. 2002.  Race, gender and environmentalism: the atypical values and beliefs of white men.   Race, Gender and Class 8: 1-19.

Krausmann, F., S. Gingrich, N. Eisenmenger, K.H. Erb, H. Haberl and M. Fischer-Kowalski. 2009.  Growth in global materials use, GDP and population during the 20th century.  Ecological Economics 68: 2696-2705.

Southwick, C.H. 1971. The biology and psychology of crowding in man and animals.  Ohio Journal of Science 71: 65-72.